Marty Niland: Werth the straw that stirs Nats' drink

The Nationals have been hit hard in recent weeks by injuries to key players like Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos, Ross Detwiler and Stephen Strasburg. But perhaps the most important injury to hit the Nats this season was the hamstring injury that kept Jayson Werth out of the lineup from May 3 until last Tuesday's game against the Mets. The Nats missed not only his talent on the field, but his leadership in the clubhouse. Now it's apparent by the team's improved intensity that they're reaping the benefits.

Back in 1977, Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson was quoted as saying, "I'm the straw that stirs the drink" in explaining the difference he made in the New York Yankees' talent-laden lineup. That's exactly the role Werth plays for the Nationals: a leader whose most valuable contributions are made in the clubhouse and the dugout, but who can come through with his bat and glove when needed.

Without the 10-year veteran in the lineup, the Nats were 10-13. Since his return, they are 3-2, including two come-from-behind wins, and have won back-to-back games for the first time in more than a month. The most experienced player in the everyday lineup in his absence was Adam LaRoche, who is also a 10-year vet, but is not known as a fiery leader like Werth. In the outfield, Denard Span, in his seventh year, was tasked with mentoring youngsters Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore.

But since Werth's return June 4 against the Mets, he has not only taken charge in the outfield, but has made the cleanup spot his own, perhaps for the rest of the season if he can keep up his level of play.

Werth's bat took a couple games to warm up, but after a 1-for-4 game last Tuesday and a hitless performance in Wednesday's blowout loss to the Mets, it got hot fast. He belted a two-run homer in Saturday's loss to Minnesota and went 2-for-3 in the 7-0 win in Sunday's doubleheader opener. In the 5-4 nightcap victory, he was 2-for-4, driving in two runs.

Some Nationals fans and members of the media are still asking if Werth is really earning the seven-year, $126 million contract he signed in 2010. But there's a reason his walkoff homer in Game 4 of the National League Division Series graces the back of the center field scoreboard at Nationals Park. As if hitting the most significant homer in franchise history weren't enough, the past five games have shown that Werth earns his money every day.

As long as he's in the lineup, the Nationals will have a chance to get back to the postseason in 2013.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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